This article was first written and published for the Roar.
he NRL season is almost upon us, which means it’s time for The Roar’s annual countdown of the 50 best players in the competition.
This year, Scott Pryde, AJ Mithen, Joe Frost, Tim Gore and I were asked to send in our top 60 players, with points allocated for their position on each list (60 points for first place, 59 for second, 58 for third, so on and so forth). The points were then tallied up to produce a definitive list of the best players in the competition. In the case of a tie – and there were a couple – the player who appeared highest on one of the individual lists took the higher position.
Go easy on us, too. This task is a lot harder than it sounds.
50. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
Melbourne Storm | Prop | Last year: 100 (+50)
I must admit I was surprised to see big Nelson ranked so low. What’s incredible about Asofa-Solomona is he is just 23 years old and has already played over 100 games.
He started every game last year for the Storm and saw big improvements in his numbers, both for running metres and lost contact metres. Expect him to continue to develop this year and carry on terrorising opposition forward packs.
49. Josh McGuire
North Queensland Cowboys | Lock | Last year: 41 (-8)
Not a player who made my top 60, but I can see why others selected him. An injury hampered Josh McGuire towards the back end of 2019, but in the early rounds we saw what he was capable of, including one performance against the New Zealand Warriors where he played the entire 80 minutes and made 220 metres.
For 2020, McGuire and the Cowboys will be hoping for an injury-free year. There’s no doubt the big lock will be key if the Cowboys are to make the eight.
48. Chad Townsensd
Cronulla Sharks | Halfback | Last year: N/A
When the NSW Blues were hit with an injury crisis last year, Chad Townsend was one of the names thrown up for a Blues halves position. That was no surprise given his career-best form in 2019.
The Sharks have plenty of work to do following a disappointing season, but hopefully their halfback really takes ownership of a Cronulla side that was extremely inconsistent last year.
47. Tevita Pangai Jr
Brisbane Broncos | Prop | Last year: 73 (+26)
I’ve picked the Broncos to make my top eight, but it’s only because of the strength of their forward pack, in which Tevita Pangai Junior plays a huge role. Averaging almost 120 running metres per game, he proved just how difficult he was for oppositions to stop.
Pangai Jr is prone to the occasional brain snap though and spent some time on the sidelines last year due to suspension. His challenge for 2020 will be discipline so he can play as many games as possible.
46. Valentine Holmes
North Queensland Cowboys | Fullback/winger | Last year: N/A
It’s a big call to include Valentine Holmes in this list given he didn’t play any rugby league in 2019, but the former Shark is trading on the fantastic reputation he had before leaving the game to try to crack the NFL.
Let me remind you of what Holmes achieved in 2018: he scored 22 tries, breaking the record for the most in a season by a Cronulla player, and he played all three State of Origin games and was the standout in an otherwise disappointing Queensland Maroons outfit.
Many people have the Cowboys in their top eight because of Holmes’ return. Let’s see if his return meets expectations.
45. Paul Vaughan
St George-Illawarra Dragons | Prop | Last year: 78 (+33)
Despite a disappointing season for the Dragons, it was another impressive year for Paul Vaughan. He played all three State of Origin games and was rewarded for his excellent form with a Test debut.
His inclusion in this list is no surprise given his strong performances in 2019 when he led the Dragons for post-contact metres per game and was second only to Tyson Frizell on post-contact metres per carry.
44. Ryan Papenhuyzen
Melbourne Storm | Fullback | Last year: N/A
What an incredible year Ryan Papenhuyzen had in 2019, particularly considering very few of us knew his name in 2018 and he was not even the Storm’s first-choice fullback going into the season. It speaks to the depth the Storm have in their roster.
In his first year in the NRL, in 22 games Papenhuyzen ran for nearly 3000 metres, scored nine tries and made 17 line breaks. He also played for Australia during the World Nines. The big question for Papenhuyzen will be whether other teams have figured him out as he heads into his second season. Even if they have, good luck catching him with those lightning-fast feet.
43. Cameron McInnes
St George-Illwarra Dragons | Hooker | Last year: 85 (+42)
2019 was a breakout year for Cameron McInnes, so it is a tremendous shame he will miss the beginning of the NRL season after suffering an MCL injury at the Nines, especially after he was named new Dragons captain for the year.
Like Vaughan, McInnes was a rare shining light in a largely dismal Dragons team and was of great assistance to Ben Hunt, particularly when he ran the football. McInnes will be crucial if the Dragons hope to make the top eight – fingers crossed he recovers well from his injury.
42. Josh Jackson
Canterbury Bulldogs | Second-rower | Last year: 63 (-6)
Jackson may be nearing the end of his career, but he showed what a valuable player he was when he led the Bulldogs last year. Dean Pay’s side may not have made the finals, but few expected they would with the squad they had, or even perform as well as they did, particularly towards the end of the season.
Despite some off-field drama, on it Jackson led by example as the Bulldogs showed they could upset several teams in the top eight. I still don’t see Canterbury finishing in the top eight this year, but expect vast improvement under Jackson’s leadership.
41. Cody Walker
South Sydney Rabbitohs | Five-eighth | Last year: 43 (+2)
I’m surprised to see Walker so low on this list; he is one of the most exciting players in the competition. Incredibly, he has only missed one game in the last four years in the NRL due to injury.
Despite plenty of disruption for Souths over the last year with several key players moving on, Walker has been a constant fixture and I’m hoping to see him and Latrell Mitchell link up this year in what could be an explosive combination for Souths.